Knitting Up the Raveled Sleeve of Care

I am the family Archive. I REMEMBER.
I remember the things no-one else does. People say “How do you remember all that stuff?” I ask them how to forget. “Please.” I say, “I’m begging you. Tell me how to forget.” They laugh, but I’m not joking. I would love to get rid of a good deal of what reels about in my head, lurching in unannounced and unwelcome like a pissed Uncle at a Christmas party.
I remember the things no-one else wants to.  Useless, pointless trivia.  I dread the person who says, “Did you know that ……….?  Or the person reading the paper who announces, “This is interesting ……”  Ten minutes later they’ll have forgotten it entirely.  I, on the other hand am condemned to knowing yet another useless [but fascinating] fact, which I will trot out in moments of nervous tension adding merely extra weight to the body of already established opinion that I am, as the Aunts would have it…. “Not entirely hmmmm… Not exactly aaaaah…. But you know, yeeeees just a little bit……. DIFFERENT.  Strange obsessions, mad passions, even for a small boy…”
Never mind.  You get that.

I remember the things no-one else will.  In painful, humiliating detail.  The only difference between me NOW and me at nine is that sometimes NOW; I can refrain from telling my family the things about them I remember whenever I look at them.
Take my mother for example.  Apparently I SHOULDN’T have remembered the first time I heard her fart.  [Inadvertently I assure you – I wasn’t hanging around in ANTICIPATION, for gosh sake!!]  Equally apparently I especially shouldn’t have remembered it as part of my speech on the occasion of her seventieth birthday celebrations in a rather special restaurant.  Sorry.
I used to think it was being able to remember that was so important.  Scathing in contempt of the lesser mortal who [horror] COULDN’T REMEMBER!!  It is simpler, much uglier than that.  I just had to be RIGHT.  Most times, I actually remember only just as much as I need to, but what ever I do remember, is remembered exactly.  This is not a talent that endears the young to anyone.  I have Aunts who, were they alive, would STILL not be talking to me.
My memories are often not my memories at all…  Rather it is experiences passed on, accumulated, accreted across generations, detached by time and from a distance.  Memories of memories.  For instance I have never been to war but I have memories of two, from the suddenly silent grandfather and uncles at dawn service ANZAC Day, stuck to me like barnacles as I sailed my childhood through the Sargasso of their stories..

Not old men then, but in that moment….. aged.

My grandfather’s brothers.  Small, wide, laughing men who told endless stories.  My generation knows them all.   The Christmas Pud “Mum” [their mother, my Great-Grandmother] sent them that was so hard they used it as a cannonball, the   Christmas Truce on the Western Front, both sides meeting in No-Man’s Land to exchange gifts and sing Carols. Yes I know now it wasn’t their story, not exactly, but the men it DID happen to never came home to tell it for themselves, so…. It needed to be told, so they told it.

“Stile Nacht, Helige Nacht.”

The ‘hen-oeufs’ story –

“Madame,” says Charlie, “I want FOUR oeufs.”
“Oui, M’sieur, quatre oeufs.” Madame replies
“No Madame,” says Charlie all serious, “not CAT oeufs, HEN oeufs!”
Bonzer Manure. Silver Plate. O Reservoir.

and always, at the end,

“Jingoes, could your granddad ride! Would “a been a jockey – “cept for the war.”

He was a teamster for the Light Artillery my granddad, and the slaughter of those poor animals affected him much more than anything else the trenches could throw at him. My brother has the photograph of Hellfire Corner that hung in the Old Man’s shed. I can’t bear to look at it.
After the war he could never bring himself to ride again.  He became a Town Clerk instead.  His sister-in-law taught him book-keeping.
They never spoke the truth about the war, telling us laughing stories instead, but none of us ever missed the pain behind them.  The dead; the stupid, futile effort.  Little boys with skun knees and bruises, still hurting, still crying in their sleep after forty years.  Without dogma they taught me principles, without jingoism, national pride.  They taught me that bravery is mostly ignorance and that courage is always fear.  These small straight men with painless post war jobs and ambition only for quiet living and simple joys.  Tram drivers, railway men and council clerks with time for fishing, kites and small boys.

The jetties, Henley, Grange and Brighton.  Sunsets and murmurings, the half caught deep satisfaction over double and triple header tommy ruffs on 9lb. lines and No.10 hooks.  The blunt fingered patience with soggy cockles and icky worms, and rats-nest Alvey side-cast reels, while we ran up and down scaring off sea-gulls and checking the crab nets.
The summers at Port Elliot, predictably endless, that come back as textures.

The constant sea-wind in the Norfolk pines.

The War again in these trees, each planted in memory, each with its bronze plaque, green with age, but the names worn bright from the hands that come to touch and wonder and remember.
What must have been more than half the young men of this small town line the cliffs here.
They are full of the living dead these war memorials, full of a lively peace that grows with the trees and the small boys playing cricket beneath.

We never climbed those trees.

Perhaps we should have.

The summer house, “Sea View.”

Mrs. Wauchope, the widowed landlady.  Her attached flat out of bounds, herself rarely seen, but present by the mystifying sounds of movement through my bedroom wall, and cryptic notes left for my mother regarding the use of facilities and general decorum.  A comfortably cluttered Victorian cottage garden watered by the septic, and a white rail front fence to tight-rope on.
The train, “The Blue-Bird’, twice a week, running behind the house to flatten our carefully placed pennies.
own at the beach, age and status determined by where you swam.  Little kids down by the surf club and jetty.  Big kids and motherless dare-devils down in the dumpers.
Parke-Davis “Filtrasol” for the nose and lips – “Tahiti in a tube”- my dad would say, and Frangipani still means summer and sunburn.
Red  T-shirts so Mum could see if you were drowning.
Surf mats, whose thick, heavy rubber caused concussion and excitement in equal measure.
Beach bats and quoits.
Mum firmly ensconced in a beach chair with towelling hat and robe, pattern book for future jumpers, knitting and watching us at the same time under a green striped canvas beach  shelter with endless supplies of cordial in a blue “Willow’ cooler.  Lion brand cordial extract; red, green and yellow, mixed up by the quart in a yellow plastic jug with boiling water and about six pounds of  sugar.  Hyperactivity by the pint.  And SALT tablets, never mind the gallons of sea-water  we inadvertently swallowed, that made my  big brother sick, and me carefully hide under the tongue, to be spat out later.
Night time and citronella coils, until the old man got a candle making craze, which stunk up the house for months, and drove my mother mad with the little flakes of wax left stuck to every kitchen surface.
The stench of citronella gave my sister’s friend an asthma attack, and everyone else hay-fever, but it didn’t seem to bother the mosquitoes or moths, which drove my sister into a frenzy in two entirely separate ways.  Firstly, the bugs themselves, and their propensity for hiding and fluttering in the bouffant beehive of the person most likely to detest their insectile attention.  Secondly, my father sitting patiently, patently being eaten alive and still claiming that his sputtering deterrents worked.

It was only in the later years that I remember my father being there much at all.  In the early years he would appear on weekends, an unfamiliar visitor, someone you thought you knew, but didn’t immediately recognise.
A working father, a fifth wheel, irrelevant to a holiday.
He would arrive lateish Friday on the “Bluebird” special and spend the weekend doing endless laps swimming up and down Horseshoe Bay.  He came to “relax”, so we didn’t see much of him, just a log in a bed snoring fit to beat the band. I couldn’t work out how he could sleep so much. Turns out he was taking enough Lithium to fell a horse.
Mum kept us carefully out of his way.
In the later years we couldn’t get away from him. Turn around and there he’d be, wanting to join in, totally unaware that he’d had his chance and lost it years before.
I think he was never forgiven for not liking to play cards, particularly by my maternal grandmother, his mother-in-law who believed a body to be unnatural who didn’t like cards.
I’ve thought since that this professed dislike for cards was perhaps an attempt to subvert this old ladies’ influence over us, which was not inconsiderable.  If protest it was, it went completely unnoticed, which made him sulk and go for long walks for no apparent reason that we could detect. We shrugged, that was Dad.
Cards, cards, endless cards, night after night.  Other games sometimes, Monopoly, Scrabble, Chinese Checkers, draughts, Chess.
But mostly cards. The cards and the gossip, the stories, the fights and the stories about fights, learning my dreaming through the skein of years.

Young Uncle Eddy, skimmed over lightly, a sad case, the war you know.  He took to the drink, and my mother has viewed everything alcoholic that’s passed our lips since with grave suspicion.  He came drunk to Puppa’s house one Christmas, and Puppa sent him away.  Not to humiliate him, but to save him from humiliation.  He was……. not quite himself.  They found him dead in a paddock near by the next day.  Boxing Day.  Of a worn out, broken heart.

My Mum’s memory this, but mine now.

The cards and the dreaming learned together.

Old Maid, Snap, Sevens…….

Euchre,  500,  Bridge…….

Learned in that order, as soon as we were able.  Serious stuff these cards, but only ever for fun.

Coon-can…… canasta……Bolivia…..

and a ring in from my brother’s eventual wife, Singapore Joe.
Simple games we could quickly teach visitors so they could have fun too.  Perhaps it would have been more polite to have asked them if they wanted to play, but we never did.  This wife had difficulty until she understood the true purpose of Family Cards.  She cared far too much about winning. Still does. She never did work out what really mattered, for of course she was not told.  She should not have to be told. We just stopped playing with her.

Formidable women in my family.  The more serious the topic of conversation, the more serious the game.  When Nan and the girls played contract bridge, serious trauma was imminent – or had already arrived.

NORTH:        “Do you think Jack and Beryl will marry? – One heart.”

EAST:               “Seems ridiculous at their age.  Still, I think they should……. at least for June’s sake, you know how people talk.  Two diamonds.”

SOUTH:         “He gambles and drinks – Three clubs.”

WEST:            “Beth is no better at all.  The doctor says it won’t be very long now.  Three spades.”

NORTH:        “It’s Murray and the children that’s upsetting me the most.  Four hearts.”

EAST:             “Perhaps we should have brought the children with us.  Still.  Four spades.”

SOUTH:         “Doubled.”

WEST:            “Re-doubled.”

She died soon after, that pale grey auntie, the pain of it as choking as it was unexpected.

Her death is remembered this way,

“- remember that dreadful holiday we had at Brian’s beach house?  It was the first Easter we’d had together since Beth died and we all fought.”

Amputees missing a limb.

Back to Port Elliot and the games are scrabble and monopoly.  Nan and Andy respective champions here.  They taught me to cheat with panache.
Always the under-currents around the table when they think you’re not listening or incapable of understanding, and you aren’t and you don’t really, but single frames become feature films once you have enough of them.
It goes back to texture.  You feel and smell and taste what’s going on.  No less an understanding, just formless until – often years later – it snaps into focus.
I don’t remember having friends there.  I certainly never took any with me, but I don’t remember missing them.  That was my place, my families’ place.  The beach, the rocks, the jetty.  My secret sacred places.  Caves, hidey holes, still, quiet places that were mine alone.  I know I resented any invasion or even evidence that someone else had been there.  An empty bottle, lolly paper or ice-cream stick was enough.  The place was defiled, and I would never go back.
The end arrived with the telly.  We didn’t have a telly at home due more to Dad’s moral convictions than parsimoniousness.  He’d always joke that he’d buy a telly when they managed to make a colour one.  Until 1975, I was the only kid in school that didn’t have a telly.

Teacher:         “I want you to watch a documentary on the ABC tonight – yes Tyler?  What is it now?”

Me:                 “I can’t Sir, we don’t have a telly.”

Teacher:         “What, is it broken or something.”

Me:                 “No Sir, we don’t have one.”

Teacher:         “Oh.  Sorry.  Has it been repossessed or something?”

Me:                 “No, we have NEVER HAD one.”

Teacher:         “NEVER?!…….. But isn’t your father some sort of University type?  Surely he could afford one.”

Me:                 “He doesn’t WANT one.”

Teacher:         “……..What religion is your family Tyler?”

One year we arrived at Sea View to find a huge, H.M.V. coin operated monstrosity had installed itself under the lounge-room window, complete with lace doily and an Art Deco back-light reminiscent of the radio dish at Parkes.

It was instantly an instrument of discord.

So unfamiliar with this object of technology were we that we thought that snow and poor sound were endemic to the device and until one of my sisters more sophisticated friends adjusted the aerial, it remained an instrument with a mystery and prophetic power almost oracular in its obscurity.  Actually being able to decipher what was going on lessened its marvellous impact and we were soon embroiled in its less tolerable side-effects.
Fights about what and how much to watch.  Constant demands for more two bob bits from Dad.  No talking during the program, an idea Nan, who, unlike us, already had a telly, couldn’t encompass, believing the new-fangled device to be a sort of back-ground noise generator, and therefore an aid, not an encumbrance to good conversation.
Mad dashes to the toilet during ads, though for a while there these last were more interesting than the feature.   Similar dashes for cups of tea and “snacks’.  Howls of amusement and/or frustration when the telly ran out of money, inevitably during some imaginary climax.  The telly did it’s worst one night during “The Eddie Duchin Story”, he beautifully dying of cancer, bravely sinking, we all in tears, the memories of Beth still too sharp, when the telly suddenly faded to that pinpoint of intensity it gets and went black.  Stunned, unbelieving silence and then pandemonium, while the illusive two-bob is sought and inserted.
We never did see Eddie die. Probably for the best all things considered.
We laughed about the telly, but it changed everything.  Mum and Nan tried, forcing us into reluctant bored efforts at the old pursuits, but it didn’t work.
Time belonged to it now, not us.  It left us no time to dream, and that made us irritable, as if we’d not had enough sleep.  We had one more summer after that, then my brother and sister were “too old” for family holidays, and even I was beginning to feel pituitary pressures.
We never went there again, but in my Dreaming I went there yesterday, I am there today, and I can go there again tomorrow…..

…..when I need to.


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